In what has already been a dramatic roller coaster of a primary season, there has been yet another plot twist: the recent surge of the 78-year-old Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. I would like to dissect the primary race at this point to explain how the field has arrived at its current state and to provide an explanation for Senator Sanders’ recent success.
The democratic primary field opened in 2019 as a contest between three primary front-runners: former Vice President Joe Biden, Senator Elizabeth Warren, and Senator Bernie Sanders, with Biden clearly the early favorite. This is largely because of Biden’s self-portrayal as a moderate candidate, an alternative to his democratic opponents, whose policies have been labeled “far-left” and described as pseudo-socialist. And it is fair to label Biden a moderate when compared to Sanders and Warren, even though his policies and ideology are not politically moderate by any means. His obvious association with popular former president Barack Obama also made him an appealing candidate, whether or not that reflected anything about his abilities in office. So, it is fitting that one should ask, why has Biden failed to continue his dominance over the democratic primary field? Moreover, how has a self-proclaimed “democratic socialist” been able to gain such traction if Biden’s selling point was that he is a moderate candidate who can more easily succeed in a general election against President Trump?
The answer to this question is clear and simple: Biden is boring. And I do not only mean to say that he is an old career politician who lacks fresh ideas and flashy plans to excite Democratic voters, although this is very true and one reason why he is in jeopardy of losing the primary. His performance at this year’s debates has been abysmal at worst and, at best, nothing to write home about. He simply does not stand out among his Democratic opponents. While it is true that he is still the front-runner in many nationwide polls (RealClearPolitics has him polling at an average of 6.3% above Bernie Sanders), he is losing ground and has already lost his lead to Sanders in the first two primary states (Iowa and New Hampshire).
There are also several indications that Sanders’ recent push is not finished, which is a strong reason for Biden to be concerned. First, Biden received less campaign funding than Mayor Buttigieg and significantly less funding than Senator Sanders in the final quarter of 2019. Secondly, the attendance at Biden’s campaign rallies and town halls has been sparse compared to Sanders, who has proven his ability to draw large crowds. These are indications that Sanders is a much more exciting candidate than Biden. Sanders appears to energize his base much better than Biden, which is why Sanders has surged in recent polls.
It would not be fair, however, to wholly attribute Sanders’ recent success to Biden’s mediocrity. Elizabeth Warren’s decline has greatly benefited Sanders, as evidenced by polls which suggest that Sanders has acquired many voters who previously supported Warren. I should once again mention that Biden is still leading in national polls. However, with primary elections beginning next week, it will be interesting to see if Sanders continues to surge in the polls and whether supporters of other candidates will abandon them to either vote for Sanders or Biden. One thing is certain: this roller coaster of a primary season is far from over.